In today’s fast-changing workplace, work-based learning has become even more important for employers to consider when offering skills-based training to employees.  Work-based learning focuses on delivering training programs in the actual work setting, not in a classroom or an online environment. 

How can managers realistically consider work-based learning programs when remote work has now become the norm and not the exception? This challenge is especially critical when considering how to prepare individuals to enter many technology occupations. Location dependence for work seems an assumption of the past.

Dr. Ron Jacobs, a professor of Human Resource Development at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Principal, SiTUATE, LLC and Rich Braden, Managing Director of CompTIA Apprenticeships for Tech, led a Though Leader Series session around this increasingly relevant topic. They also took some time to answer some additional questions after the session:

Structured-On-the-Job Training (S-OJT) creates a bit of a Catch 22 when ramping up a program in departments that have high turnover or that have a hard time filling job openings. When management needs all employees to spend their full time doing the job and can’t spare any amount of time for them to train new employees, new employees aren’t trained well, and they will likely quit and leave the department understaffed. How can you show ROI from S-OJT for a department that is not fully staffed?

Great question. I did research on this and found just the opposite. That is, the argument for using S-OJT in higher turnover positions is even greater, because there’s the need to get people up and working sooner. But this is true only when you calculate the financial benefits in reducing the learning time. I reported this research in HRDQ and in a chapter for ASTD. The question for management is whether they have the insights and courage to forego a bit of productivity upfront, knowing that they will benefit from that investment more in the long run. We tell our clients to believe in this principle. But in my work, we have actually shown this to be true with real numbers.

How do we continue to integrate the knowledge of the younger generations with the wisdom of the elders in the workplace?

This sounds like the idea of “tribal” knowledge that often occurs in organizations. In one client – Kenworth Truck Company – they called this “Build” knowledge. S-OJT is not meant to necessarily provide all the tribal knowledge per se. But it does embed practices that comprise what this means, such as safety and quality. In addition, S-OJT brings together experienced employees as trainers and novices in a planned way, that no other opportunity might provide. A dissertation I directed that was published in HRDQ several years ago showed that when organizations increased the amount of formal learning opportunities, there was also an increased amount of informal learning occurring as well. So if you want people to share, there are some direct and indirect strategies that can be used.

What is different when creating S-OJT for leadership skills, in particular in emerging or more senior leaders?

While we’d not like to think in this way, there are limits when S-OJT works best. I’ve not ever seen S-OJT used with senior leaders – in fact it might be called executive coaching. S-OJT works best when there’s definable units of work involved. I’ve used S-OJT with supervisors and managers, but not with senior executives.

If we wanted to market an apprentice program to potential employees, what are some ways to reach them with the message?

Assuming that it is a fully baked program offering in your company, then marketing to employees is easy. Tell them that apprenticeship is the newly adopted career pathing system in your company for some difficult to fill positions, that they will be fully supported by talent, training, and leadership, and you will achieve a nationally recognized registered apprenticeship credential that is recognized nationwide.  These are just the headlines – the more critical step is convincing management that apprenticeship is the way to go to developing a pipeline of predictable talent for difficult to fill jobs.

When convincing leadership to implement more OTJ training, how do you recommend presenting a pilot and how it can financially benefit the company? Figures like retention and salary can be out of range for many in learning, but leadership is often focused on the dollars.

Easy – a pilot project is the way to go, along with forecasting the financial benefits. Many times we forget that ROI is more than simply generating numbers. It’s about getting management to agree on what the numbers mean in relationship to other numbers. That is, any improvement project might be attributable to S-OJT alone or some other improvements as well – retooling, software, etc.

In organizations that do S-OJT well, is it built into a supervisor’s job descriptions, goals, and metrics or do they just recognize the value of it and do it because it’s the right thing to do?

The best option is to have the supervisor’s expectations spelled out upfront. They often need to be the champions in the work areas.

Thanks for your focus on analyzing tasks and clarifying performance outcomes! Can you say more about the development of findable/usable performance support resources that may even reduce the learner’s dependence on an in-person trainer or coach?

This is a question that is always asked related to S-OJT: How can we reduce the need for having the other person, when a performance support tool might suffice? Please recall that performance supports guide behavior, and is not meant to have any recall of the information.  If you want training, then the other person is almost always required. I can relate some research and personal experiences that support this point. Please recall that learning is fundamentally a social phenomenon, making that other person (the trainer) an important part of the system if learning is to occur.

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